A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Rating: C

Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Star: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey

I love the visual style here, which is decades ahead of its time. However, the Earth-bound scenes are truly that: Earth-bound, featuring a thoroughly unconvincing wartime romance between British pilot Peter Carter (Niven) and American radio operator June (Hunter). She falls for him as he returns from a bombing mission, as he prepares to bail out without a parachute. Miraculously, he survives, waking up on the beach near where she is billeted. Turns out a clerical cock-up in the other world, combined with fog, let Carter slip through the net of death.

He’s supposed to be “tidied up,” but mounts an appeal, and is given three days to pick an advocate, from all the dead of history, who will put his case to stay on Earth, due to his new romantic obligations. Meanwhile, Dr. Reeves (Livesey) is convinced it’s all the after-effects of a concussion, and schedules an operation to correct the condition. The main problem is the yawning chasm between set-up and pay-off – between Carter getting the news of his upcoming trial and the trial itself. Despite protesting the absolutely reality of the vision, Niven is implausibly unperturbed by things, considering either he’s about to go on trial for his very life, or he’s teetering on the edge of insanity. I know it was the era of the British stiff upper-lip and all that, but really…

Despite being shot in black and white, heaven seems a lot more colourful, though it doesn’t seem the sort of place where anyone would want to spend eternity. Then there’s the coincidental fate of Reeves, which hardly merits any concern, in contrast to Carter’s. It all makes for a curious morality – or lack thereof – and the film cops out completely as to whether or not it’s all going on in the hero’s head. The luscious design, such as the escalator which links the worlds, and beautiful cinematography do help distract from the flaws, but I was unable to develop any kind of emotional attachment to the characters. Second-best British film of all time? I think not.